Dramatic Reading

The National in lockdown

I didn’t realise how much I love the theatre until I couldn’t go anymore. I took it for granted that I could wander down to the National, the Old Vic and Young Vic, the Almeida and the Bridge, the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Globe, The Royal Court – whenever I wanted to. I’d often go mid-week, after work, grabbing cheap last minute tickets for the price of a seat in the cinema. I loved being immersed in that dark communal womb of wonder where the outside world falls away and you’re fully, utterly, breathlessly present for two precious hours. Watching another world come alive before your eyes, the product of a collaboration between so many artists, is a joy and a privilege, and witnessing it with a mass of unknown others, who, for those two hours, form a connection – become one with you – in that suspended moment of shared experience, is a form of genuine magic. But living in London, I was spoiled by how much choice there was of theatre to see, and I didn’t recognise it as a privilege to be able to watch one or two plays a week – it was just a given. Sometimes – sometimes I would book tickets and not even go! I’d be too tired after a day at work and think oh well, it doesn’t matter, I’ve got something else booked for next week – what I wouldn’t give for such nonchalance now. I truly didn’t appreciate what I had, and how precious my theatregoing experiences were. I also had no idea how empty my life would feel without that ability to immerse myself into an imaginary universe once per week. I only truly understood what the theatre meant to me when I walked down to the National Theatre in May, saw its blank-eyed facade devoid of any life, and burst into tears. I genuinely felt like I had lost a friend.

More time has passed in this strange state of limbo than I’m sure any of us could have imagined since coronavirus arrived on our doorsteps. We have had to adapt and adjust and accept our new reality, and in many ways, I feel this has been a good exercise in learning not to sweat the small stuff. It’s also been an excellent exercise in helping me to distil exactly what I value the most, and what I really could do without in my life. Understanding how much the theatre means to me has led me off down a path I never thought I’d tread; I’ve been writing plays myself, and am currently doing a playwriting class (online!), which I’m enjoying enormously. I’d never thought for a minute that I could possibly write a play – and I’m certainly no great shakes at it! – but I’m loving the experience of thinking like a playwright, and discussing plays from the perspective of a playwright, and sharing my passion for plays with people who also love the theatre. And, in order to fuel my creativity, and replace the void of theatre-going in my life, I’ve been reading plays, which is never something I’ve ever really done for pleasure. Obviously, as an English teacher, I read and teach plays all the time, but it had never occurred to me to read them for non-work purposes. After spending a few weeks immersed in plays, I’ve discovered how much I’ve been missing. Most plays take an hour or less to read, and the experience of reading them is intense and exhilarating. As a reader, you have to do so much more work with a play than you do with a novel – it’s up to you to fill in the silences, to interpret the stage directions, to imagine the staging. It is a real imaginative workout for the brain, and while it doesn’t replace seeing it come to life before my eyes, I’ve been on a wonderful journey through some of the best plays of the last few years. If you need to reboot your reading life, or are struggling with attention span at the moment, give a play a go. You might be surprised by just how much you enjoy it.

I’ve been galloping through the back catalogues of Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Brian Friel, Eugene O’Neill and Caryl Churchill, as well as exploring the work of some of the most interesting and challenging playwrights of the last ten to twenty years – Jez Butterworth, Laura Wade, Simon Stephens, Sarah Kane, Annie Baker. I’ve been looking at different translations of Ibsen and Chekhov and Brecht. One play often leads to another, one playwright to another, as I seek out more in a particular style, genre or period. It’s an education, and it’s certainly giving me a focus and a distraction during this latest lockdown. I am just loving it. If you’d like to have an explore of some playwrights outside of the big historical names, this publishing company, Nick Hern Books, is a great place to start.

And finally, my own sadness at the closure of theatres is nothing compared to the devastation felt by those who work in the theatre, a huge number of whom are freelancers and receive very little, if any, government support. If you can, please do support your local theatres – become a member, donate some money, or pay for some of the online streaming services the larger theatres, such as the National, are offering. The thought that theatres may not be able to reopen due to insolvency when this is all over is unbearable – the loss to our collective cultural life will be immeasurable. We must do what we can now to ensure our theatres have a future on the other side of this.

23 Comments

  1. I also miss the theatre so much, and so I declared that March will be “Reading the Theatre month” on my blog. I think we’ll have some interesting contributions but of course it’s no substitute for the real thing.

  2. I understand you completely. Tasmania has the Theatre Royal, the oldest theatre in Australia. Google it to see how beautiful it is yet small. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh appeared here once. I also had my yearly girl’s week out in Sydney with my girlfriend to see a play at the Opera House. I would see 12 to 15 plays a year and now it is silent. However the Theatre Royal is opening now in a limited capacity as Tasmania, being an island with strict protocols of quarantine does not have Covid here. Everyone will be so happy when this scourge is gone. One day you’ll be back in the theatre, I’m sure. I did a play reading class through U3A also for several years. The members of the group had so much fun reading the various parts of plays week after week. That too has evaporated. Have a look at the play Rhinoceros. Great. One of the French absurd plays.

    1. That is such a beautiful theatre! What a wonderful place to have to visit. I’m glad things are starting to reopen and that you can enjoy the theatre again – there was a brief window in October and November when some theatres were open here and I took full advantage – it was such a joy. Being part of a reading group must have been such fun – I would love to do that! I shall check out that play – thank you for the recommendation! Here’s to happy times at the theatre again for both of us soon!

  3. I’m also missing the theater terribly. I was so fortunate to move to the DC area in 2018 and there is so much theater here — there are actually more active theater companies around than in New York City (though obviously much smaller, more regional and community theaters). I actually met a man who told me he literally went to the theater every single day! I’d just started volunteering for a small local theater company during the shutdown, and I was able to see one of their plays in March just before everything closed. They’re doing online classes and activities and yesterday I just started a class in the History of Musical Theater.

    I’m trying to fill my time also by watching film versions of musicals and recorded live musicals, and I’ve also started listening to plays on audio. Sometimes you can get full-cast versions that are very good. I have a harder time reading plays but I’m going to try.

    When this is all over I’m going to watch EVERY PLAY I can squeeze in. I will never take live theater or cinema for granted, ever.

    1. Yes the DC theatres are marvellous, so I’ve heard! How wonderful to be involved with one. I bet that’s such fun, and hopefully it won’t be long before it’ll be open again. I can’t wait to get back into a theatre and absolutely – I am going to see everything and never, ever take it for granted ever again! Radio plays are things I have never really listened to before lockdown, actually, and now I really enjoy them – if you can access it from the States, BBC Radio 4 does excellent ones.

  4. Beautiful post. Something lovely but sad – our local community theater group did a Zoom Santa fundraiser over Christmas. I thought it might be depressing, but it was actually magical – my daughter loved it. Hopefully the actors got something out of it as well.

    1. What a lovely idea! I’m so glad you were able to enjoy that. Better online than nothing at all, though I have to say, I will be glad when I never have to use zoom again!

  5. I also really, really miss the theatre, even though I did watch NT Live online and also my own personal little favourite, the New Diorama Theatre put on a couple of suitable immersive onlin shows. (I used to work directly opposite RADA, so always went to the stars of the future in their end-of-year performances). Like Lory, I am planning to read plays in March to compensate a little bit.

    1. RADA is so close to me too – they do such great stuff there. I miss those small venues where you see new and exciting stuff. I’m really hoping that the need to think more flexibly due to all this will lead to more innovative and unusual small-scale theatre in non standard venues, giving more people access to theatre and leading to less reliance on the big theatres who can’t always – for various reasons – take a punt on emerging writers or more avant-garde productions. Here’s to us both getting back to the theatre soon!

  6. I’ve read two lighthearted plays during lockdown which I’ve throughly enjoyed – The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder (later adapted for the film Hello Dolly), and Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw. These are a good place to start if you are not sure about play reading.

  7. I would like to chime in with your request for people to please support their local theatres as best they can for now during this latest lockdown. I’m a freelancer within the industry myself, but work has more or less come to a hault, and the funding opportunities which still exist are extremely competetive. I sincerely hope the major theatres here in the UK are able to recover and re-open as soon as possible. Good luck with your playwriting classes.

  8. I feel your pain, Rachel – and I went to absolutely everything I could find when a few theatres briefly re-opened. Even if the play wasn’t great, it was worth going just to feel that normal London life had been resumed. And everybody seemed so happy to be back – cast and audiences and front of house staff. I’ve choked back tears in concerts and galleries I was so glad to be there!
    I’m keeping my fingers crossed for late March/April with a bit of luck! So fed up with embracing ‘slow living’ – I want a bit of life.
    What a great idea taking playwrighting classes – you don’t let the grass under your feet. (Hangs head thinking of hours frittered on box sets!)

    1. Slow living is definitely overrated! I’ll be out there with you as soon as the doors reopen – I’m champing at the bit. I loved going to The Bridge when it briefly reopen – had a little tear myself the first time, with the joy and relief of it all – though little did I know how short-lived it would be! Thanks Mary – if I weren’t doing the playwriting I’d be atrophying watching reality TV, so I had to do it to save my brain!

  9. It’s so good to hear of something positive coming out of this whole pandemic crisis. Out of adversity you have found a new channel for your energy – it won’t of course replace actually being in those seats when the curtain goes up and you’re transformed elsewhere. But it could be the beginning of a whole new adventure

  10. I love your description of the experience of theatre. I miss it too, though I didn’t have the great variety of someone in London. Great idea of read plays outside of English teaching – I see you walking around your lounge room, reading aloud and gesticulating.

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